A citizens board that reviews complaints against the Spokane Police Department will never have authority to overrule the chief of police.
That’s the consensus of a group of city officials and citizens who re-evaluated the board’s role following the conclusion of its first and only case.
In response, the group has rewritten the ordinance that regulates the Citizens Review Commission, which was created in March to give people a place to air their complaints about police misconduct.
The new rules - to be voted on by the City Council on Monday night - curtail the commission’s power and responsibility in some areas while expanding it in others.
The bottom line, though, is the commission can review the police chief’s decision-making process, but it can’t change his or her decision in misconduct investigations.
Commission member Mike Holmes summed it up this way: “We can say, ‘This stinks,’ but we can’t do anything about the smell.”
City officials have struggled for five years to come up with a workable citizens oversight board for the Police Department.
They thought the latest review commission could work. Then, this fall, commission members decided that police Detective Tim Madsen used excessive force during the arrest of Davenport, Wash., vegetable farmer Christopher Ostrander.
Mangan had ruled that Madsen was justified when he pulled Ostrander out of his minivan by the hair after the detective stopped him for a traffic infraction in Airway Heights in January.
Ostrander disagreed with Mangan’s decision and took his case to the commission.
The commission held a hearing in the matter then sided with Ostrander. Members recommended that a special investigator be appointed to look into the case.
The Spokane Police Guild, which represents most of the department’s rank-and-file officers, objected. Under the union’s current contract, only the police chief can find an officer guilty of misconduct and decide punishment.
The Guild filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the state to protest the Review Commission’s decision, claiming it violated the contract. The City Council’s Public Safety Committee, which oversees the commission, threw out Ostrander’s case and ordered the re-evaluation of the commission.
Members of the Public Safety Committee, the Review Commission, the Police Guild and the Police Lieutenants and Captains Association crafted the new rules.
The Guild has agreed to drop its unfair labor complaint if the City Council accepts the new rules.
The Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, chairman of the commission, said the new rules will put the panel “headed in the right direction.”
Commission member Ben McInturff disagrees.
“I have a major disagreement with the new ordinance, even with the old one,” said McInturff, a retired state Court of Appeals judge. “I don’t want to be a part of it any more.”
McInturff wouldn’t elaborate, saying he will address the City Council on Monday to make his opinions known.
Commission member Atara Clark contended the ordinance is a good compromise. “I think it’s the best we can do considering the union has a contract,” Clark said.
Holmes said the contract is only part of the problem.
Spokane’s council-manager form of government is what really precludes meaningful citizen oversight of the Police Department, Holmes said.
Under the council-manager format, the chief of police answers directly to the city manager, not to the mayor or City Council.
That makes it virtually impossible for a committee appointed by the mayor or council to have any power over the Police Department, Holmes said.
“It’s hard to blame the police for being angry. It’s hard to blame the commission for being frustrated. The fatal flaw is the weak mayor,” he said. “The power to act upon a citizen’s complaint is fed into the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy makes the decision. The power doesn’t seem to be in the hands of the people.”
But nearly everyone involved in the process, including police administrators, said abandoning the commission altogether is a bad idea.
Commission member Clark said the panel can serve like a chained watchdog: It may not be able to bite, but it can bark like crazy if it sees something wrong.
“The only thing we can do is bring the press in if we see something wrong,” she said. “That’s not to say (the chief’s) always going to be making bad decisions. But if he is, our mission is just to let the public know.”